Sword of the Stars II: Kerberos Got Some 4X’plaining To Do.
The intergalactic 4X genre is sadly underrepresented in this generation of PC games. The salad days of Master of Orion, Stars! and Galactic Civilizations seem long past, and gamers have relatively few quality places to turn to in order to get their fix of eXploring the galaxy, eXpanding their civilizations, eXploiting resources to build up those civilizations and ultimately eXterminating their rivals. Currently, the genre is mostly represented by small studios, indie developers keeping the dream alive.
In 2006, Kerberos Productions, a small developer based out of Vancouver, Canada, released a solid entry into the genre called “Sword of the Stars.” Kerberos followed up on this release with three major expansions over three years, as well as a vast number of patches and minor updates to the game, making it one of the best examples of the genre in years. The original Sword of the Stars and its expansions are currently bundled together as The Sword of the Stars Collection, and can be found on Steam for $5.00 on sale, though they generally go for $20.
Well, a true sequel was inevitable, and during this past week Kerberos released Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter. The game promised to offer new factions, better graphics, deeper ship design, and a generally deeper and more interesting game. While this game certainly has the potential to be great, in its current state it is clearly unfinished, buggy and broken, an exercise in intergalactic frustration and disappointment.
A Song Of Spaceships and Planets
Sword of the Stars II: Lords of Winter, seems to have a lot going for it, in that it has a lot of promise. The game is a pure, nearly traditional, entry into the space-faring 4X genre, whose staples include leading your race across the galaxy, colonizing worlds and researching new technology, designing and building your own ships to do battle and build up your civilization, and eventually making war upon your enemies, often with spectacularly cinematic space-battles. Sword of the Stars II embraces its 4X heritage, theoretically delivering on each of the X’s via deep and intricate systems of gameplay, including six different factions, each with their own game-changing way of traversing the cosmos.
Of course, the original Sword of the Stars games did much of this, and those games work just fine after years of patches, expansions and updates. So what’s new with Sword of the Stars II?
For one, the graphics really are better than the original game’s, but this is to be expected. Frankly, I still find them to be a little too cartoonish, especially the avatar pictures that the player can pick to represent their faction. This is personal preference however.
The game has a number of new technologies that can be researched, encompassing 14 research trees altogether, and like the first game the available technologies are randomized, meaning that each game could see players having access to new and interesting abilities.
As a general matter, Kerberos has added a good number of new systems to the base gameplay of Sword of the Stars II, making it a deeper and more complex game than the original, for better and worse.
As a positive example, things like managing spacecraft in the strategic portion of the game (non-combat) have gotten easier. In that instance, ships are now organized into fleets that can be sent on specific missions and then return home once that mission is complete. The result of this mission-focused system of ship movement is that surveying planets, colonizing, attacking, etc, is all managed ahead of time when you send your ships out in the first place. This system isn’t perfect, as I wish the game made it easier to change the missions of your fleets mid-go (for instance, I could not figure out how to tell a survey fleet to stay put after it finished surveying a system so that it could then colonize a newly discovered planet), but generally, I like this change.
Also, one of the more interesting new systems added to the game is a morale rating for each planet, and even individual populations within planets (as multiple species can live together). Whereas the first game eschewed these kind of minute statistics and factors in favor of a big-picture approach to empire management, things like government debt, military losses and oppressive taxes can damage the morale of your systems in Sword of the Stars II, leading systems to revolt or even setting off a revolution. In the latter case, your empire actually goes into a full on civil war, and your fleets get divided up into where their admirals are from (you assign admirals when constructing the fleets). It’s a great idea, and really the game has a lot of great ideas. It’s a shame that they don’t really play out all that well however.
Before I discuss how the game is unfinished, before I berate Kerberos for releasing a buggy and broken product, I want to make the point that the complexity of Sword of the Stars II is, in my opinion, a misstep for the series, as it has sacrificed a critical element of that made the first game successful and fun: intuitiveness.
Generally, 4X games tend to be complicated affairs, but the games that are the most successful often soften their complexity via good user interfaces, often combining ease of control with good communication of critical information. The Civilization series, while not a space-based 4X game, is a great example of this rule. The game has numerous systems running from the micro to the macro levels, and even so the game does a great job of automating what needs to be automated, alerting the player to what needs to be decided, allowing the player to control things easily, and so on. It is a complex game that is relatively easy to play.
The original Sword of the Stars, as it exists now, modified by numerous expansions and patches, had a similar charm. The game was complicated, with dozens of technologies to research leading to all sorts of different ship designs and combat considerations, as well as random encounters, huge, sprawling galaxies, etc. Even so, the interface and structure of that game was such that it never became entirely overwhelming, and Kerberos made a conscious decision to automate or leave out certain things like tax levels, morale, production queues, etc, in order to make a game that was easier to pick up and play, but deep enough to keep people interested for months if not years.
It appears that, in Sword of the Stars II, Kerberos decided to put in all of those little systems that they had held back from the first game, and just let the game’s complexity roll.
Take, for instance, the aforementioned morale system, complete with fleet construction and admiral traits. None of this information is communicated to the player in an easy-to-understand format. How do you get more admirals? No idea. What’s the morale of my planets and how can I affect it? The manual offers some general tips, but for the most part is entirely haphazard.
The ship design and building systems also suffer from the same problem. In the prior game, when designing ships, each part was explained, given ratings and context, so you understood what kind of ship you were building and what was on it. In Sword of the Stars II, neither the game, nor the manual, explain a large number of the ship parts, so it’s up to you to hunt this information down in forums or just risk it on your own. Also, Ships are now built by actually creating invoices, a system that could theoretically be useful, as it allows players to save invoices and re-order the same kinds of ships in the future, but because the interface is imperfect, it’s very difficult to see what is being worked on at what time and where, and to change those orders if necessary.
There are plenty more examples of the increased complexity of the game. For instance, there are now space stations, each with individual upgrades and effects, but keep track of what is where quickly becomes a chore once more than a few are built.
Also, and this is an area that the first game specifically attempted to avoid, government spending has been expanded, allowing the player to allocate funds differently, leading them to different types of governments. Again, none of this is explained well, nor is it communicated to the player efficiently as the game is played.
Finally, I should mention that the combat interface has been revamped and changed into something that is, again, far less intuitive. First, the game now features real time space combat on three vertical planes instead of one, but it doesn’t seem to matter much. The combat interface shifted from one that made apparent sense in the original Sword of the Stars, to a mishmash of unlabeled buttons in Sword of the Stars II. Whereas in the original game it was simple to select your ships, move them about, and throw them at the enemy, Sword of the Stars II makes this whole process far more tiresome than it needs to be, and eschews the ability to exit from or pause combat. What buttons are labeled don’t necessary do what they claim to do, but part of this could be because the ship AI is somewhat broken at present. More on that in the bugs section. The big point here is that they attempted to make combat a deeper affair, but only succeeded in making it confusing and irritating.
Generally, this is the case with most, if not all, of the new features: they are neat ideas on their own, but because they are difficult to access, understand, and keep track of, they make the game overly complex and detract from the experience. There are more graceful ways to introduce new complexity, but Kerberos was unable to accomplish this task. As it stands, the game doesn’t provide the player with enough information to manage its own complexity, and these new features either get ignored, abandoned, misunderstood, or the game as a whole can quickly become overwhelming.
It seems like Kerberos designed Sword of the Stars II to satisfy some theoretical player that actually felt like Sword of the Stars was too simple. I don’t know who this person is, but I imagine even he is frustrated by the poor user interface and information communication.
Lost In Space
To say that SOTS II had a rough launch on Steam would be an exercise in understatement. When the $40 game became available to download, thousands of unfortunate purchasers ended up with what was apparently (according to statements on the official forums) an unfinished beta version of the game. Savvy readers may remember that a similar thing happened with the Dead Island launch. Heck, this sort of thing seems rampant. Even Rage launched on Steam with broken drivers and some incomplete option features. Of course, it’s hard to blame Steam and Valve for any of this: they simply upload what the publisher gives them. As such, this was clearly a fuck-up on the part of Paradox and/or Kerberos. Even so, both companies were very up-front about the error and promised a same-day patch that would fix many of the problems. That patch has since come and gone, and unfortunately, even the “complete” version of the game clearly isn’t anywhere near cooked.
In other words, huge parts of the game are simply MIA at the moment.
What sort of things? How about the options menu? That work for you? That’s right, there is NO in-game options menu. There was one in the initial broken release, but none of the buttons did anything. Kerberos’ solution was apparently to just grey it out in the patched version, and let customers rely on a very sparse pre-game options menu to adjust their settings.
For a game that billed itself as expanding on the fiction of Sword of the Stars, there are actually no scenarios in this release. These were present in the original Sword of the Stars games, and provided a more structured way of playing the game and learning the mechanics. Oh, upon creating a new game and selecting your map, there is certainly a scenario button you can click on, but it does nothing. As it stands, the game is literally a collection of skirmish maps for AI or multiplayer play with the obscure promise of more to come in the future.
I should also mention that they have taken out the ability to alter these maps by including more or less stars, and changing the average distance between them. Systems are still randomly generated, but the size of the maps are now sacrosanct, and there is no random map generator.
The game also seems to be lacking all of its cinematics. The game opens with a static shot of the Kerberos and Paradox logos, and goes straight into the title screen. I wouldn’t have even noticed this as a missing feature if it were not for the greyed out “cinematics” option on the title screen, or the direct reference to opening cinematics in the game’s online manual.
Finally, newcomers to the game may find themselves completely lost, because Kerberos decided not to include any kind of tutorial or in-game manual. After fishing around online for a while, I found a 50+ page PDF manual that described maybe 25% of the features in the game (being generous here), so even that wasn’t particularly helpful. To be fair, I am actually not certain if this is technically a missing feature, as Sword of the Stars fans have stated that part of the allure of the game is figuring it all out as you go along. Still, it would be nice if the game explained, for instance, what all the buttons actually did. Tooltips are one way of handling this problem, but in this instance, half of them are nonexistent, and of the tooltips that do exist, a good portion are unviewable, as they appear behind the window you will currently have selected. More on this sort of thing in the bug section.
It’s a Bug Hunt
So here’s the bug section. The game is buggy. No way around it whatsoever. The game’s unfinished and buggy nature can be felt in nearly every facet of the experience.
As I mentioned, the combat is broken, somewhat due to the fact that the interface is almost unusable, but mostly because your own ships don’t seem to have any AI, and can’t actually fight on their own.
The game crashes. A lot. These crashes are sometimes predictable (one game I played the game crashed every time I made it to turn 17, without fail), and sometimes seemingly at random. While the game does do a generally good job of auto saving, the crashes get so bad that it becomes a struggle just to double click the game’s icon again to restart, knowing that you will be back in the same place in just another 20 minutes or so. I should also mention that the crashes got so bad for me at one point that I could not even start the game at all. This required a complete reboot of my computer to fix.
I already stated that the game is missing a large number of tooltips, but beyond that there are quite a few tooltips and pieces of text that are bugged and read as code or “Missing.” This phenomenon is just pervasive enough to constantly remind players that they are using a substandard product. Also, as I mentioned before, some tooltips are entirely unusable as they load behind the window players have selected.
One of the other major issues with the game is the long load time between screens. Now this varies depending on users, and on my very fast machine I didn’t experience a huge amount of it. From the main menu, somewhat on random, the game would just take about a minute to confirm a selection before moving on. Sometimes it would just move instantly, sometimes it would not. I have read horror stories from users on the forums however that this problem is pervasive throughout the game itself on their machines, so your mileage may vary in this case.
Finally, there is just a general buggyness to the game as a whole. Sometimes units become unselectable. Sometimes screens will freeze or stutter, or the game will select the wrong object. Sometimes combat will just flash by in under a second, insisting that you lost a battle. The buglist on this game is a mile long, and it does no good to list them all out here. Just understand that they are there and they are a big problem.
My first instinct, upon buying a game as buggy and unfinished as this one, is to be angry and belligerent towards the developers. See my article on Stronghold 3 as an example of this. However, Kerberos and Paradox have done a decent job of getting out in front of the issues surrounding Sword of the Stars II. Public apologies have already been made, multiple patches have already been issued, and refunds have even been offered to some.
The main line of reasoning coming from both the companies as well as longtime series fans: Kerberos is committed to supporting Sword of the Stars II, just like they supported the first game, and so all of these problems will eventually be ironed out.
While I do give Kerberos and Paradox some credit for being forthright with customers, this reasoning is a lot to take on faith. The real problem is that they released an unfinished, buggy game for $40, with the promise that some day, after an indeterminate amount of time, it will be fun to play. This may very well be true, but it feels intensely unfair to have been duped into spending $40 to participate in Sword of the Stars II’s de-facto beta. More than that, they are going to have to do a lot more than just fix the current bugs to make the game playable and fun. Serious additions and/or alterations need to be made to the user interface and to how certain systems work in the game. It is unclear when and if this will happen.
So what’s the verdict? Don’t buy the game. At least now. I honestly do think there is a great (ok, maybe good) game hidden in there somewhere, and the first Sword of the Stars is a very fun experience at $5 or $20, but it could be months or even years before Sword of the Stars II is up to snuff. I would give the game a nice wide berth until then.